Friday, August 22, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Time to reform divorce laws

By Beverly Willett

No-fault divorce has been a disaster. Touted as the antidote to the animosity and high cost of family court litigation, it's been anything but. Divorce rates remain at nearly twice their pre-no-fault levels, while marriage rates have plummeted to a record low. Family court litigation is still contentious, and divorce mills line the pockets of family law practitioners. This trend has produced a bumper crop of American families worse off economically, physically, and emotionally than their predecessors.

In short, we need divorce reform.

The goal of reform is to reduce unnecessary divorce among those with minor children. By slowing the process, educating couples about the harmful effects of divorce, and providing skills to help them improve their relationships, reform could save marriages and ensure that more children grow up in two-parent families. Even if couples don't reconcile, reform could defuse tempers. It would also restore some balance to the process. No-fault sides with the party who wants out. Reform would give some support to the party who wants to stay married.

I'm a liberal Democrat from New York who, several years ago, co-founded the bipartisan Coalition for Divorce Reform (CDR). The scholars, marriage educators, lawyers, and concerned citizens involved span the spectrum from left to right. Our supporters are divided on many social issues, but what unites us is our deep concern about the well-being of our nation's families.

After 41/2 decades of no-fault divorce, the research is solid: Most divorces involve low-conflict marriages, and waiting periods generally correlate to lower divorce rates. Children of divorce, including those of so-called "good divorces," generally fare worse than children of parents from intact families, including those in mediocre or unhappy low-conflict marriages. Children of divorce are more likely to experience poverty, struggle with drug and alcohol abuse, suffer depression and diminished educational attainments, become teen mothers, commit suicide, and die earlier than their peers from intact families. Marriage, however, protects the health and well-being of children on every important indicator.

Acceptance of these facts may not feel good, but it's time to stop letting what feels good dictate our laws and policies.

No proposed reform legislation (even a return to grounds-based divorce) would ban divorce. The majority of the proposals are modest in scope, retain no-fault divorce, and merely extend the waiting period and require couples to attend counseling or other marriage education classes before rushing to sever their families.

With so much at stake, is a little patience and a four-hour class such an indignity?

Can anyone predict with certainty that one child or the next will commit suicide or that the culprit if they do is traceable directly to divorce? Of course not. So it is with social science research upon which our laws and policies are enacted daily. But can we afford to keep gambling with our children's futures?

Divorce reform does not seek to roll back the clock. To the contrary, advocates take protection for spouses and children seriously; it's why the CDR specifically calls for retaining protection for domestic-violence victims. Moreover, two-thirds of all divorces involve low-conflict marriages. And research demonstrates that women are far more likely to be abused by their cohabitating boyfriends than their husbands.

Granted, more than a purely legal fix is required. During the last four decades, there have been fundamental shifts in society, some good, some not so good. Cultural tenterhooks, too, have contributed to the demise of marriage - the destigmatization of unwed childbearing and adultery, the advancement of "soul-mate philosophy" as the best foundation for relationships, the growth of hyper-individualism and our happiness-obsessed society, the trend toward disposability in our personal dealings and exchanges, the elevation of form (political correctness) over substance, and so on.

Any conversation about marriage must include the cultural influences that can best shore it up. In short, law and culture must work hand in hand. But one function of law is to remind us of what we value in a culture, and our current divorce laws remind us that marriage is not very high on the list.

We can't let fear stop the conversation. Columnist Megan McArdle contends, "When you make it harder to exit, you also make people reluctant to enter." Really? Is that why, before no-fault divorce, 72 percent of adults were married, while that rate is just shy of 50 percent today?

Happy, healthy marriages and families should be on everyone's agenda, and that means we need to talk about divorce reform. One of America's leading politicians has wisely stated: "Divorce has become too easy because of our permissive laws and attitudes. ... Divorce should be much harder when children are involved [because] we know that children bear the brunt of failed marriages."

Who said that? Hillary Clinton.


Beverly Willett is an author, lawyer, and cochair of the Coalition for Divorce Reform. beverly@beverlywillett.com

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